Monday, December 31, 2012

More b'aqtun

The invitation from the Consejo de Pueblos del Occidente called for a reclamation of the true meaning of the Oxlajuj B'aq'tun, calling upon all brothers and sisters to help disseminate the message of the true meaning of the B'aq'tun, and to join with them them (CPO) in the sacred sites of Zaculeuw, Iximche and Q'umark'aj, starting at noon on December 21. I had spent the night of the 19th in Xela, which is about 2 hours away from Santa Cruz del Quiché (Q'umark'aj is located on the outskirts of Santa Cruz del Quiché; some of the stones from the destroyed Mayan city were used to build the cathedral that overlooks the central plaza of Santa Cruz).  I had breakfast with one of my dear friends in Xela, someone who is active in the CPO, to catch up a bit and pick each other's brains. Sadly, he wasn't planning to arrive until the 21st, his daughter, who is also a good friend, had said she would arrive on the 20th, so I was hopeful I'd have some company for the long overnight haul.

The highway between Xela and Santa Cruz is one of my favorite stretches of road because of the spectacular landscape. The road is lightly traveled once you pass Totonicapán, which is about 20 minutes from Xela -- one time I had to traverse it after dark and that was one of the few times that I have actually been anxious about my personal safety, mostly because there are some stretches with no houses nearby, and so if anything were to have happened, I would have no one to call for help. 

Although I hadn't slept much (I don't generally sleep well in Guatemala), I felt refreshed and ready to hit the road. I don't quite know why, but I actually enjoy, in some perverse way, driving in Guatemala. Perverse, because as I've written in earlier blog entries, the roads often have sharp curves around steep mountains, there are almost no shoulders, other drivers -- especially those of trucks and intercity buses -- are maniacs, and there are often places where the road fell away during a rainy season, or on other stretches there are a lot of speed bumps. But around every heart-stopping curve, there is heart-wrenchingly beautiful landscape, so beautiful it hurts. Heading past Cuatro Caminos towards Totonicapán, there is a place where women gather to wash their clothes. It's fed by a natural hot spring, and it might technically be labelled a bathing area (balneario) but I've only ever seen women washing clothing. I didn't stop or slow down, as I wanted to get to Santa Cruz with some time to spare, so that I could sit in the one upscale café and have a latte and think, more than anything else. But I could see the dark-bright colors of their clothing, what they were wearing and what they were washing, as some stood knee-deep in the water and scrubbed, others knelt on the grass near the water, and I could see the steam rising from the water.

An uneventful (thankfully) two hours took me to Santa Cruz, with enough time to get my latte and change my clothes (I had no idea what would be expected and I knew it would get cold at night, but I thought I'd wear a nice dress, to look at little bit less like a tourist). I drove up to Q'umark'aj, found a parking space on the drive up to the site, and went off in look for anyone who looked like they were about to start a ceremony. At the main "plaza" surrounded by some hills and monuments, I saw a man and three women gathered around a small fire in the center. The man had a red servilleta (woven cloth) wrapped around his head, designating him as a Maya priest, and the three young women were all wearing "nice" traje (i.e. clearly not everyday wear but special occasion clothing). There was someone taking photos, who turned out to be a journalist from one of the major radio stations, Emisoras Unidas, and then a few other journalists. 

I didn't really know who was going to be setting up for the ceremonies that had been announced by the Consejo de Pueblos del Occidente (CPO) or Chilam B'alam, but I was on the lookout for people who looked like they were organizing SOMEthing. And while this one small group was conducting their ceremony, some other people arrived in a van and started to unload things: this, clearly, was the start of preparations for something on a larger scale. I could overheard some of the conversation between the small group of four conducting their ceremony and the journalist, and so learned that the three women were all "official" representatives of "la mujer maya" -- that is, each of them had won a title in one of the innumerable local and national pageants for Maya women. They are not precisely "beauty pageants" as looks are not the only criterion, and they have been criticized for "folklorizing" Maya culture. However, they've interested me and so my antennae went up.

One of the people who had arrived with the supplies for the ceremonies also participated in the interviews, and then the queens and the man who was officiating at the ceremony took off. I introduced myself to the woman who was directing things, who was from Chilam B'alam;we had met, I think, at an event last year. The person whom I know best from Chilam B'alam, it turns out, was out of the country, officiating at a ceremony in Europe. Later, others arrived, and slowly people started to assemble the elements and construct the altar, in the middle of the large ceremonial space. There were over a dozen men and women who were Maya priests, and others who helped put together the altar. There were several different kinds of incense, pine needles, candles of different colors, flowers, flower petals. Eventually there was a central altar, and then four smaller altars, each at one of the four cardinal points; a total of five altars, and the various priests and priestesses were divided among those altars so that each one had a few people who were responsible for attending to it.

I realized that I hadn't really planned adequately for food, and there isn't really anything near Q'umark'aj... and I thought about driving back to Quiché, but didn't want to lose my parking space, as I knew that people would be arriving throughout the afternoon and evening.  So I just figured that I'd work something out (I was lucky: others had brought food to share).  The afternoon proceeded pretty leisurely. Eventually, around 2:30 or 3, the compñeros and compañeras from the CPO arrived, and also my friend/colleague Ixchel from Radio Ixmukané, to do some interviews. One of the people from the CPO was a woman named Lola Chavez,  She is a well-known activist in Quiché, and suffered a brutal attack by armed men earlier this year when she was leaving a meeting of the K'iche' People's Council of the CPO.  I'd never met her but knew her reputation and knew about the attack, and we have mutual friends, so I introduced myself and she was extremely warm and generous with me, and then I later brought Ixchel over and introduced her so she could do an interview. I also introduced Ixchel to the president of Chilam B'alam, who was presiding over the arrangements for the ceremonies. She left, however, in mid-afternoon...

And so I will leave this off for now, and return later to write about the actual ceremonies, finally.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Learning to wish properly - community radio in Momostenango

I write this from the studio of Estereo Maya/La Princesa Ixmukané, a community radio station in Momostenango, Totonicapán, that was founded by a group of 60 or 70 Maya priests about 23 years ago, and is now run out of the home of Don Julian Velasquéz. This morning when I was readying myself to set out from Chinique for the journey to Momostenango it was raining lightly, as it has rained lightly throughout the night, the drops falling rhythmically on the corrugated tin roof of my friends' home. I thought I'd wait a bit to see if it cleared up, and the sun did peek out from the clouds several times, although it got pretty grey by the time I turned off the highway that leads north out of Santa Cruz del Quiché and leads to Santa Lucia la Reforma in Totonicapán; from Santa Lucia, there's another road that goes from Santa Lucia to Momostenango. But these highways, if we can call them that, are nearly all dirt. And not just dirt. They wind up and around the mountains, perhaps not quite as steep as the roads outside of Chichicastenango, and without those deep ravines below, but since there is almost no pavement, and it's the dry season, the curves and ascents are often covered with several inches of loosened sand and dirt. So it's very hard for one's tires to get a grip, especially when it's uphill on a curve. 

So I would have done better to have wished for a little bit of rain -- a little rain, not a lot. Because that road is also nearly impassable when it rains a lot -- all those inches of thick, soft dust on the surface turn into thick, soft mud that sucks at the wheels of your car and makes passage even more difficult. But just enough rain, to wet down a few inches of dust and pack it a little, that would have helped.

However, no such luck. And I didn't mention that the road is not only a dirt road, with a lot of steep curves, ascents and declines, but it is also extremely lightly traveled and there are stretches where there is no human habitation visible. That is, it is a lonely, isolated country road. I don't worry about physical safety during the day (this is a road I would absolutely never travel after dark), but I do worry about traveling alone and having some kind of mechanical problem (I don't even want to tempt the fates by enumerating a few possible such mini-calamities) and not being near to anyone who could help. 

No mechanical problems, but there was one very steep, dusty ascent that almost defeated me, to the point that I thought i might have to turn back to Santa Lucia de la Reforma and then, I wasn't sure what. There are two other routes to Momostenango, one of which is fully paved. It involves going to Los Encuentros, which is just over an hour and half from Chinique, and then to Cuatro Caminos (another hour), and then going up past San Francisco  los Altos to Momos (another hour) -- so about 3-1/2 hours. That was why I'd chose the dirt-road route in the first place. To then have to turn back and drive another 4 hours was a depressing thought.

The road from Santa Lucia to Momostenango isn't marked at all, so I had to rely upon sense-memory, which fortunately worked. There's one real fork, and there was no one nearby to ask, but I sort of remembered that it was the left fork, and then I saw a car coming in the other direction and flagged him down to make sure I was in the right direction. He warned me about the dust, and he was right. I came around a curve, where there was a descent to a small concrete bridge, and then the road wound up steeply, with a sharp curve to the left and then another one higher up to the right. I could see even from a distance that there was a thick layer of dust. At times like this I sometimes think that it would be useful to be religious. Not that it would solve anything, but I could at least feel comforted by crossing myself or praying, or invoking the spirit of an orisha or an ancestor to guide and protect my path. 

But I can't really fake it so I had to trust to dumb luck, the constellations, the new moon, whatever.  Oh, and did I mention that my spare tire seems to have taken itself off to points unknown?  My friend who had been keeping my car thought it might be in the garage in Chinique, the famous Taller VL (but called locally Taller Willy), where he had taken it some time back for some maintenance. He thought they had probably taken the spare out of the pick-up bed (where I usually keep it whenI travel), and he hadn't remembered to get it back from them. I tried calling Willy yesterday to see if he had the spare, but he didn't answer his phone and I got caught up with other things. So I was just hoping that all would be okay, and drove a bit more cautiously than usual. I did have some passengers for part of the trip - having some weight in the back of the pick up helps when there's not a lot of traction - but they had gotten off a few kilometers before this particularly treacherous slope.  

So, first time I didn't make it as far as the first curve when the car started to spin its wheels. So I carefully backed down to the bridge (did I mention that I really do not like driving in reverse on a road that curves and slopes and is very slippery??), and a little bit back up the slope leading down to the bridge so I could get a bit of momentum. The second time I made it  past the first curve, which was a sharper curve but a gentler slope, and then started to plow my way -- literally -- up the straighter but steeper second curve. The second the wheels started to spin (here they called it skating -- patinando) I stopped. Even more fun going down backwards this time, I assure you, as I was on a slipperier, curvier, steeper part of the road. The third time was no better. I pulled back down part way again, and turned the car off and sat and thought. I called Julian, the person at the radio in Momostenango, but he didn't answer. I couldn't really think of what I could do.  Going back was admitting defeat, and it also meant having to do some major rearrangement of my schedule since, as usual, I am trying to fit a lot into limited time. 

My original plan was not to come to Momostenango today, Instead, I had planned to set out yesterday for the town of Santa Eulalia in Huehuetenango and a radio station called Snuq Jolom Konob' , but I had also wanted to include three other stops in Huehuetenango, to the town of Santa Cruz Barillas where the townspeople have risen up, so to speak, against a proposed hydroelectric project, to the town of San Juan Ixcoy (which is on the way to Santa Eulalia) and possibly to Todos Santos Cuchumatán. When I called my friend Lorenzo at Snuq Jolom, he told me that the trip to Barillas was two hours at least from Santa Eulalia. I realized that it would be hard to squeeze all of that in, since I was invited to a ceremony on the 31st at the house of friends in Santa Cruz del Quiché. Also -- true confessions time -- I had some grades I still had to calculate. The final straw was that I had wanted to spend some time with my friend Ixchel at Radio Ixmukané - the radio station where I had worked in 2011 and which had launched me, so to speak, into the community radio movement. I have promised to help out as I can supporting Ixchel and Diego -- the coordinator and co-coordinator of Radio Ixmukané -- and when I called Ixchel to find out when we could spend a couple of hours together meeting and working on some plans for next year, the 31st seemed like the best time. So I decided to postpone going to Huehue until I could have several consecutive days, which meant sometime next week (as I don't yet have plans between the 3rd and the 13th), and then figuring out how to fill the  time productively.  

A quick call to Julian in Momostenango assured me that he would definitely be around today, and then I got the phone number of Glenda, a young woman who had traveled with me, Ixchel and one of the volunteers from Radio Ixmukané to visit Radio Ixchel in Sumpango on Friday. Glenda holds three different titles in the various competitions for "indigenous queen/princess/daughter of the people" -- there are a lot of competitions, at community, municipal, departmental and national levels, so it is possible for one person to hold several titles simultaneously. She had impressed me with her articulateness when we were at Radio Ixchel and so I thought it would be interesting to interview her, since I had formerly been interested in the whole spectrum of "indigenous queen/princess" pageants in terms of the representation of Maya women. She was available on the 31st, so my plan was set, and I spent Saturday (yesterday) taking care of tedious but necessary tasks like grading and cleaning up my hard drive.  Labors lightened, of course, by the consumption of a couple of lattes in my favorite upscale café in Santa Cruz (it's the only one, so it has to be my favorite). 

So, I was really determined to get to Momostenango. It was already about 10:15 when I stopped my car and sat and thought, and if I turned back I wouldn't be likely to find another station near enough to visit -- even  if I could find someone who was able to receive me. So, I looked and saw that there was a very small area that was sort of flat, at the top of the first curve, almost a shoulder, and I pulled back onto it, sat a few minutes, and then mustered up whatever I had, revved the car. I decided to go kind of hell-bent-for-leather, hoping that if I floored it at the right time I'd make it up... and I was right, although there was a moment after the second curve when I thought I was going to backslide once again. 

Then another several kilometers of dirt road, with a few small patches of pavement occasionally. About a kilometer and a half after my near-miss, there were two men who flagged me down. I only wished I'd had them on board earlier as the weight would have helped. They went with me as far as Momostenango, and I've been here often enough that I was easily able to make it to the radio station, which is in Julian's home. This is not uncommon for community radio stations, since the stations run on a shoestring, and are mostly staffed by volunteers, so unless there is some institution that wants to donate space (this is the case in Santa Eulalia: the municipality has given the station a small space in the back of the municipal building).

I'll leave it at this for now, and start another entry about radio more specifically. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Peace Accords and the wounds of war

Today is the 16th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords, that brought a formal end to the 36-year long armed conflict. However, 36 years is just an imaginary number, and time is a very fluid and malleable thing in Guatemala. The Maya calendar is not a single calendar but a series of calendrical systems, which overlap and intersect; each of them marks time in a different way. There is a cycle that is based on rituals. Another way of counting time that is based on the moon. There are the b'aqt'uns -- 400 year periods. The b'aqt'un we just completed covers much of the black period that began with the Spanish invasion in 1524, but another way of marking time would be to use 1524 as a nodal point, with a sharp cleavage between the "before" and the "after". So the armed conflict can be seen as just the latest (or not even the latest) in a series of wars -- some more subtle and others more militarized and formal -- against the indigenous population, and so the Peace Accords might mark and end to this particular 36-year long war, but it certainly didn't end racism, discrimination, displacements, denial of full rights, and the use of violence against those who would challenge transnational corporations and local elites.

In the past year, the state has not hesitated to use force against dissenters, and both the state and commercial interests label those who defend indigenous rights as "terrorists" or "communists" -- taking a page from the Cold War playbook of the armed conflict.  And so this is a bittersweet anniversary at best. It goes beyond irony to see news announcements that the President of the Republic would be exchanging roses of peace with ex-guerrillas. The news story in today's paper did mention that inequality, discrimination and poverty are rampant 16 years after the war's end -- over 50 percent of the population live in poverty and 50 percent of children suffer from chronic malnutrition. I had to force myself to look at the photos, but at least the one in Prensa Libre was a bird's-eye view; I'm not sure I could have stomached looking at one  that featured Pérez Molina's face. A top military commander, he was a signatory to the accords in 1996.

The country is so far from full compliance with the accords. I have spent most of the time since I arrived with activists in the indigenous rights movement, Maya spiritual leaders, community radio activists and while I would not say that people are desperate, there is a sense of .. not just disappointment, but frustration and anger at the slow pace, but also the many setbacks. I have been staying for the last several days with my very dear friends in a poor rural family, and their lives are still a daily struggle, and the promises of the peace accords seem very distant from their everyday challenges. It was I who mentioned the anniversary. It's not that they don't know or don't remember, but ceremonies in Guatemala City, involving photo ops for elected officials and others, are quite remote -- not only geographically, but in terms of helping them meet their essential needs.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I must note that I am writing these lines from the comfort of an elegant café patronized primarily by members of the local gentry, since the electricity went out in the rural household where I am staying -- and because of the gendered division of household labor and responsibilities, the woman of the family does not know how to fix the electricity, only her husband. It doesn't seem to involve anything that major as the electricity has failed several times since my arrival, and the man of the house has been able to get it working again in a few minutes. But he is out working in the family's fields today, up in the hills outside town, and frankly, during the daytime, electricity is not essential to the most of the family's daily routines. One doesn't need electricity to heat bath water on a wood-burning stove, to wash clothes at an outdoor sink, or to cook. They take their corn to a small mill run by a neighbor about 200 yards down the highway, to be ground into masa, and so pretty much all of their daily routines proceed as normal. The only real setback for them is the inability to charge phones. They do have a computer and a TV but generally only use them at night -- I don't mean to portray my friends in some romanticized or stereotyped way as "simple people". But much of the essential household activity can proceed without electricity. They had a fridge (and they also inherited mine) but they never seemed to use it much or plug it in, and I haven't asked what happened to it (maybe sold or given to a relative). It's  just the visiting gringa who is dependent upon having a good supply of electricity -- at least on days like today that I am not out on the road, visiting a radio station, but trying to stay put and catch up on things.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Guatemala of the senses and sentiments

Not only have I tried to write about Guatemala but I have worked a lot with images, to try and capture what I can't put in words. But there is much that seems to escape me in either medium. No matter how I have tried, I have not been able to make satisfactory pictures that give an accurate sense of the sweep and scope of the landscape. Even with the lens of my camera at the widest aspect ratio, the volcanos and mountains and ravines seem flattened and squeezed. To get a full view of the landscape, for example, surrounding a volcano, the volcano itself seems too small when I look at the photo. 

So much of how I experience Guatemala is transmitted through other senses -- hearing, smell, and taste. Perhaps if I were a better writer I could more accurately capture the range of smells that constitute rural life: the dust of the roads, the damp earth in the morning, the chill in the air before the sun has climbed over the hills and burned off the fog and mist. There is a crisp dry smell of cornfields after the corn has been picked but before the dried-out stalks have been plowed back into the earth. The fresh, sweet-sharp scent of pine is almost omnipresent out of doors, along with the smoke of wood fires. Shards of the smoke from copal or pom (two frequently used forms of incense) waft through the air at odd moments and in unexpected places. The other day walking up the long path/drive from my friends' house to the road (there are two other houses, one belonging to my friend's parents and the other to an older brother, that are entered by the same drive), I caught the unmistakeable odor of incense smoke, which surprised me a little, since I associate incense with Maya ceremonies, and my friend and his family are Evangelicals -- Evangelicals frown on traditional Maya religious practices, while Catholics have been more tolerant (this is a gross oversimplification; Maya "costumbre" filters its way into people's daily lives in all kinds of ways, regardless of their formal religious affiliation). 

Markets are a riot of colors and sounds and smells. Ambulatory vendors chant somewhat monotonously. There is a special patter adopted by those who sell various kinds of cure-all compounds, some of which are marketed as vitamins or health elixirs, that I can't fully reproduce. Walking through the market one is assaulted, in a manner of speaking, by the vendors calling out, "Oranges, 3 for 5 quetzals" or "Hot tortillas", "Sweet strawberries". If you stop to look, "Taste them, no commitment, look at how sweet and red they are." The slap-slap sounds of women  and girls patting out tortillas, then slapped onto a hot grill, giving off the unmistakeable scent of toasted or even slightly charred corn dough.  

I could go on, with all the mixture of sweet and vegetal scents of all the fresh produce, mixed with the rotting leaves and husks lying underfoot at the end of the day. Or the bananas well past their prime, perhaps, or the bloody, sometimes slightly rancid, smells from the butcher stands.

Of course, I cannot forget the chokingly acrid diesel fumes along the highways, or on the streets of towns when trucks or buses pass.  Or the human scents: lightly sweaty skin, or bodies that carry the traces of wood-fire smoke, sometimes a sunny or soapy whiff of freshly-washed clothing, occasionally some very strong (or overly generously applied) perfume.... In any case, more than I can capture here. Even this blog entry seems kind of pallid and inadequate. But, the best I can do for now.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Cold, rural households and gender

There are some things that I often forget, surprisingly given that I lived here for a year and that I've traveled here several times both before and after. One is the cold in the mountains at night. Luckily I left a few items of warm clothing here (although I see that my friend has adopted the winter jacket I purchased at a paca -- used clothing store -- when I had to travel to Montreal in the fall of 2011), and I brought a few. And in comparison with the northeastern United States, or the Ozarks, it's not THAT cold (a mild complaint about the cold on Facebook elicited some one-up-manship from an Okie friend, who boasted that the weather there was in the teens, and windy).  But it's more the contrast with the sunny and often quite hot daytime temperature that shocks the system. 

And I also don't always remember to include in my calculations that it takes longer to do everything, especially living in a rural household with a wood-burning stove and no hot running water. So making a simple breakfast of oatmeal and tea and bathing oneself involves gathering wood, kindling, figuring out where the household matches are kept, cleaning the ashes from the previous day's cooking, and then patiently tending the fire until it is well established. I try to be self-sufficient but have ended up having to wake my hosts (well, actually only the female half of the couple, since this would be her domain -- whether or not I like the gendered division of responsibilities, that's how it is, and if I woke the male half of the couple to ask where were the matches were or the ocote -- the resinous heart of a pine log that is used to get the fire started -- he would turn to his wife and ask her).  I did ask them last night if they could put out everything I would need to start the fire in the morning since I get up before anyone, but they apparently forgot.

Which leads me to observations about gender. My friends are both typical and atypical of highland Maya couples. The man is seven years older than his wife; she was 17 when they married. That's actually pretty old for a woman in a rural area, and they only have two children, by choice, and I don't think they plan to have more. That is also atypical. But he is much better educated than she is (typical), although he would like her to be able to attend school and at least complete high school (atypical). She is able to read and write, which neither her mother nor her mother-in-law can. Her husband does help out around the house some. Last night was her birthday and they held off preparing the dinner until I had come back from Chichicastenango (I got back close to 8 p.m.) and we all worked to make the meal. They killed and grilled a chicken, and I made my now-famous shredded carrot salad with Middle Eastern spices, and the best I could render of a French-style potato salad (I knew there was a reason that I had squirreled away some packets of Dijon mustard from a restaurant, although I didn't find the bottle of olive oil that I had left here in August until this morning -- I assumed they had used it so I didn't even look, but there it was in a desk drawer this morning). They both worked to make the meal, but when I needed to find one utensil or implement or another, and I asked the husband (since he was inside the kitchen at that point and his wife was outside), instead of looking for it, he called outside to his wife and asked her where it was (it was on the table, actually, about three feet away from him).  So, as enlightened as he is in many ways, there are still some deeply-ingrained patterns of patriarchy that seep into daily life.

Full moon over Chinique, roses of peace and fiestas

There is only so much that I can fit into a month, and already the time seems to be racing by. Tonight is a full moon, which means, according to traditional Maya, that it is time to plant crops. Of course, it is not possible to plant all of one's crops in a single night and no one can probably afford to wait another month to plant the next batch, but at least in theory, you are supposed to plant , or maybe just start planting, on the full moon. My hosts in Chinique were planting in their fields, which are up in the hills outside of Chinique, in Tapesquillo, today. Since school is out of session until the third week in January, most people are taking this time to plant -- the school calendar here is determined by the agricultural cycle, so school vacations correspond to the time for harvesting or planting (depending upon the part of the country). Many families here still travel to coastal plantations during the school vacations, taking their children to help out with the harvesting.

There was a short notice in the paper today about the anniversary of the peace accords, which is December 29, saying that the President, Otto Pérez Molina, would be exchanging "roses of peace" with representatives of the URNG (the united front that brought together several different guerrilla organizations) and others. It's kind of enough to make you sick, given that the president is a former general and as Lieutenant Tito, was a well-known figure in the counter-insurgency war in the highlands in the 1980s. 

Meanwhile the region moves from fiesta to fiesta; this is the calendar cycle that is important to a lot of my friends here, the cycle of the fiestas patronales. From an outsider's perspective, they are really pretty much all the same. The central plaza of the town is crowded with stands selling sweets, fireworks, food and beverage. The cofradias parade through the streets, carrying the statue of the patron saint, to the accompaniment of live marimba, and preceded by a few gentlemen whose responsibility it is to set off dynamite explosions every so often. Usually there is a Maya priest who also precedes the figure of the saint, wielding a brazier of incense from a metal chain, swinging it back and forth rhythmically so that the air fills with the  thick, sweet, resinous scent of copal - a kind of incense that is widely used in Maya ceremonies. The cofradías were set up under the aegis of the Catholic Church, but they have turned into, in most highland communities, a form of Maya civil society and social organization, and membership carries a certain amount of prestige. So although the patron saint feast nominally belongs to the Catholic Church, Catholicism seems to be a thin veneer over a core of Maya cultural practices.  Usually there is a "midway" with a ferris wheel, some arcade games and other amusements for the young and not-so-young. And, unfortunately, the fiesta is a time for overconsumption -- of food, to some degree, but primarily of alcohol, and the streets are clogged with staggering bodies, and occasionally one has to pick one's way around or over drunkards -- bolos, in popular parlance --  whose excessive indulgence has turned them into inert figures slumped onto the sidewalk, in a doorway, or barely propped up against a building.

Chichicastenango just finished its fiesta, which lasts for several weeks and clogs up the town.  Leaving Chichi on the central day of the feast -- December 21, the day of Santo Tomás, which coincided with the Oxlajuj B'aq'tun this year -- I came across a man walking very unsteadily in the middle of the highway heading south, about 7 or 8 kilometers to the south of Chichi. This is a treacherous stretch of road under the best of circumstances -- deep ravines alongside the narrow, almost shoulderless road, which takes sharp curves and plunges up and down and around the mountains. I could only hope that drivers were conscientious instead of reckless and that he made it home safely.

Residents of each town think, of course, that their feast is the best, and my friends in different communities are all eager to know if I will be attending. No sooner does the feast of Chichicastenango end, then the festivities start in Chiché (full name: Santo Tomás Chiché), which was settled by Chichicasteco refugees from some Spanish incursion a few centuries back, and basically shares the same culture (clothing, dialect of K'iche', food) as Chichicastenango. The husband in a couple who are dear friends of mine is from Chiché, and when I stopped to have lunch with them on Christmas Day, they of course wanted to assure that I would accompany them in the fiesta in Chiché. But there's only so much noise and crowds and fireworks and explosions that I can stand, or that I can make room for when I have come with the primary intention of doing research

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Back to the B'aqt'un (in a roundabout way)

As I wrote earlier, I planned this trip to coincide with the celebrations of the Oxlajuj B'aqt'un. In large measure I was interested in seeing how people in the communities where I have worked, and particularly in the community radio movement and the indigenous rights movement were interpreting this occasion, how the radios were covering it, and what its significance was in the larger scheme of things. Since this has been a year of violent repression of, and setbacks to, the causes of indigenous rights, people were looking to the b'aqt'un as a time when things might possibly change for the better. Of course, there was the "end of the world" discourse, and apparently there were people who took it seriously. Here in Guatemala, one of the commercial radio stations used the tagline "The end of the world as we know it" in their regular programming.

Throughout the year, there were a lot of cartoons that poked fun at the whole "Mayan apocalypse" phenomenon, as well as a lot of interesting graffiti. The most recent graffito that I saw (well, I saw the photo on line) said something like "I"m not afraid that world will end. I'm afraid that things will continue as they have been." 

My first two days were spent in Guatemala City -- not my favorite place to spend time, but one of my colleagues in the community radio movement, whom I had been trying to contact for a couple of weeks before my departure, told me that he was coming to Guatemala City and would  be meeting with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, on Wednesday morning at 7 a.m.  So I decided to spend the day Tuesday in Guatemala City, meet up with Tino in the afternoon and then tag along, if possible, to the meeting with the Special Rapporteur. 

I wasn't sure what I was going to go for a day in Guatemala City, other than grade papers.  But it was a good thing I decided to stay, as -- no surprise here -- my car had some problems on the trip down from Quiché (yes, my life in Guatemala requires assistance and cooperation from many friends and I am very indebted to the friends who keep my car for me and then drive it down when I arrive) and my friends had to take it to a shop. They didn't have the money, of course, to pay for the repair so I had to look for somewhere I could exchange money and also how I could send it. The phone company Tigo offers a service called Tigo Money that allows you to send money via cell phone, but it turns out that is only available to Guatemalan nationals. I had gone out in the morning to put some airtime on my phone, to see if it would work after a hiatus of several months (during which time I turned it on a few times and made calls that I knew wouldn't go through, just to keep the chip active).  It worked and so I was able to put in a call to Tigo to ask about Tigo Money. No dice. Calls back and forth to the friend who was taking the car in for repairs (the fan belt had broken, as far as I can understand, although the word "faja" -- belt -- is used pretty generically, and my friend is no mechanic). Finally I realized I could go to a branch of Banrural in Guatemala City, and deposit money into his bank account (even though the account is in a branch up in Quiché). This meant walking back towards the airport, and standing in a line at the bank; since I was doing a transaction there, I could use dollars and they would do the exchange for me. Plus they changed an extra $100, so I had some cash. All good.

But all of this took up most of the morning, and then I had to move myself to the Zona 1 - I had stayed the first night in a sweet modest little guest house near the airport, where I have stayed in the past; nothing luxurious but they are lovely people and they pick you up at the airport. But they only had room for one night. So I had booked a room at a hotel that was formerly owned by my friend Trudy. For an extra Q50, the people at Patricia's Hotel offered to take me to the Zona 1 (cheaper than a taxi from the airport, I think), so I ate lunch and then we took off.  I dropped off my bags, checked the wifi at the hotel, and then set off to take a little walk to see what Christmas was like in the Zona 1. Sometime during the afternoon my phone stopped working however.. but I'll get to that soon.  Problems with phones and cars are really worth a blog entry on their own. There was a Christmas display in the Parque Central, complete with wooden replicas of little wooden houses, Christmas trees, sleighs and snowmen, a simulacra of a snow-covered village. One of these pop-up Christmas displays was at the edge of a fountain, and looking at it over the glossy surface of the water, one could almost imagine an icy pond. Almost.

I eventually met up with my friends from the community radio movement: several of them were in Guatemala for the meeting the next day. We found a bottle of wine (since I don't drink beer and a lot of restaurants don't serve wine except by the bottle) and a place where we could get churrascos and talked for a couple of hours. They were trying to figure out where to go next in their fight to legalize the radio stations, since the Congress seems completely unresponsive to any pressure and a week earlier, the Congress had passed a telecommunications law that granted the monopolies another 25 years of usufruct of the airwaves that they already control. 

Meanwhile my friends were finally driving down from Quiché with the car, and so I had to find lodging for them and await their arrival. There was some accident on the road which slowed them down by a few hours, and then they managed to get lost once they got to Guatemala City. They made it to the Parque Central, which is all of 3-4 blocks from my hotel, depending upon which side of the park you are on) but they couldn't figure out how to find the correct street (and so it took half an hour and 7 phone calls for them to find me).

Up at the crack of dawn to go meet with the Rapporteur. We got to his office, and it turned out that the meeting wasn't a private audience but a larger "encounter" with representatives of different indigenous rights groups at a nice hotel in the Zona Viva ("the live zone" -- the nightlife district, which is near the area where government buildings, fancy shopping malls, and luxury high rises are located).  There was limited space, and at first I wasn't going to be able to stay, but -- fortunately or unfortunately -- white skin privilege or foreigner privilege worked in my favor. The people who were collecting names at the entrance came over, after they had determined that there weren't enough seats, and asked me who I was and what I was doing. I explained that I was a professor from the U.S. and doing research on the indigenous rights movement. I didn't ask for any special consideration and told them I understood that I hadn't been on the list of invitees, but they allowed me to stay.  

There were about six or seven formal presentations, on themes ranging from opposition to mining to the community radio movement. There were several common preoccupations and concerns about the current government and the continued attacks on indigenous communities and indigenous leaders, from the displacement of communities so that mega-projects can be installed, to the massacre in Cumbre de Alaska in October. 

No one seemed particularly hopeful that the Rapporteur would be able to do anything with this information. One of the co

Afterwards, I took off to Xela, to briefly visit with friends there. I had originally thought that I would be able to meet with one of the leaders of the radio movement, who lives near Xela, and had offered to give him a ride, but it turned out he had other plans. However, I had already made a date with my "grupo de locos" -- my friends in Xela - and since they are not always all available it would have been too hard to find another date, so I set off on the Panamerican highway towards Xela. With Bruce Springsteen on the Ipod, a tank of gas and the open road, and sunlight streaming over the mountains, what more could I ask? We met for churrascos and a couple of bottles, lots of laughs and conversation ensued, and then I got ready the next morning, December 20, to leave for Q'umark'aj and the various activities for the b'aqt'un. Which I will take up in another entry.

Monday, December 24, 2012

La gran tamalada//The big tamale-fest

Christmas in the community of La Ceiba, where I have come to visit a small community radio station, Nojibal Estereo or Nojibal Alegrando Corazones (Nojibal making hearts happy). The radio is in a small community not far from the coast; the aldea (hamlet or community) belongs to the department of Sololá, to the municipality of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, but it's pretty far from the county seat and you have to travel down to the coast and then head back up a little to reach the community. Here as in most of Guatemala, people are spend the day making tamales, the traditional treat for Noche Buena and Christmas. Last year in El Quiché I helped friends make what are called paches -- a kind of tamal that is made with a rice-flour dough rather than corn. It's a laborious process, taking a few days and a couple of people. 

Today the radio station is broadcasting, but meanwhile the household surrounding it is consumed with the preparations for tamales. Later this afternoon, actually in the early evening, there is a little party planned here for all the volunteers who participate in the radio station, and then the plan is to go around the community to visit all the Christmas trees (there are five or six) and do live broadcasting of all the activities. The Christmas festivities go on for days here: they start earlier in December with the quema del diablo (burning of the devil) on the 7th, and then continues with the celebration of the Virgen of Guadelupe on December 12, the posadas (a series of processions for several consecutive rights miming the journey made by the Holy Family, going from inn to inn looking for lodging), and finally Noche Buena and Christmas itself. So lots of parties, and like most celebrations in Guatemala, these all involve fireworks. Last night there were some fireworks set off in the neighborhood - mostly just ones that make a lot of noise. Fireworks aren't illegal here and so the markets are full of stands selling all kinds of firecrackers, an immense variety of small explosives, and then longer strips that you can buy by the yard.

The radio station is holding a tamal contest -- inviting the women in the community (sorry, this is all very gendered), so it is worth explaining how they are made. If you are using a corn dough (nixtamal), you of course have to start by boiling the corn, letting it cool and then grinding it. The masa (dough) is then cooked over a fire with some more water and also some kind of shortening. Here they are using margarine; my friends last year used lard, and some people use vegetable oil or olive oil (the latter is quite expensive by comparison to the other fats). You don't want to think too much about how much fat goes into the dough, I can tell you. When we were making paches last year and my friend Yanet's mother in law asked us to get another POUND of lard, it seemed better to not pay attention or obsess about consumption of fat, at least for one day.

Once the dough has cooked, it has to cool. Meanwhile, you have make a recado, a sauce containing tomatoes, chiles, some sesame seeds, and other ingredients. So the tomatoes and tomatillos have to be roasted, as well as the dried chiles, and then everything gets ground into the sauce. There might be some pumpkin seeds as well (pepitoria).  That sauce gets heated. Then the meat has to be cut up into pieces and cooked. It is then added to the recado. Other elements are some finely sliced slivers of sweet red pepper, dried raisins (much larger than the ones we have in the states) and green olives. 

Meanwhile, leaves have to be prepared since the tamal is rolled up or folded in leaves. Here they use a leaf called maxan (pronounced "mah-shan"). Some people buy the leaves in the market, but in this household one of the daughters was sent off to cut leaves in a property the family owns. The leaves have to be washed, and then some of the leaves stripped (they have a pretty thick spine) into smaller pieces. So the technique is, you take one of the large leaves and hold it vertically in your hand, with the spine parallel to your arm-bone, and the fat end closer to your body, and inside you center one of the smaller leaves without a spine. Then you take a scoop of masa and plop it in the center, and spread it out a little, until it is about 4 x 5 inches. Then a scoop of sauce, and a piece of meat on top of that. You mush it around a little so that some of the sauce sinks into the masa. Then the decorations: a few strips of red pepper, three olives, and a raisin. To fold, you start with the sides of the smaller leaf, and fold them in toward the center. Then you fold the larger leaf, again starting with the sides, then the top (i.e. the smaller end of the large leaf) and finally the fat end (which means cracking the spine so that it can fold in). 

When you have a couple dozen or a couple hundred, then you start loading up a big pot -- it gets lined with a big plastic bag, the tamales get piled up inside, some water added so that it steams, either the same plastic bag or another on top (obviously in earlier times something else was used), and then something to hold the plastic down (here they are using of wood). Then the whole thing is left on top of the stove for a couple of hours to cook.

The radio station is announcing a tamal contest: inviting the women in the community to bring a tamal to the radio station today so that they can select the best tamal.

To that end, we went to the market in the next town, a much larger community named Samayac, to get presents for the women. First we looked at boxes of cookies but they were very expensive, and so I suggested that it might be better to buy something useful, like a kitchen towel. We ended up purchasing some brightly colored colanders: cheaper than the cookies and more useful in homes that might have scarce resources.

Well, we are being called to eat some tamales....

Oxlajuj B'aqt'un, part 1

So, it should be obvious to all that the world didn't end December 21. Instead, a 400-year cycle of the Maya calendar came to an end and the following day, December 22, a new cycle began. I decided to time this winter research trip to Guatemala to coincide with the celebrations of this occasion, in part because it had been hyped so much, and also because for many of my Maya friends, it promised to be an important moment. This has been a difficult  year, to say the least, for the Maya in general and for those involved in political struggle, or defending their own rights, in particular. The new government had barely taken power in January when it began to step up the  imposition of neoliberal economic initiatives, while seeking to dramatically rewrite the social contract in Guatemala (through a series of "financial reforms", a proposed constitutional reform), and at the same time stepping up the repression of those who challenged these measures. I have blogged previously about the military take-over of Santa Cruz Barillas in May and the massacre of the peaceful protestors at Cumbre de Alaska on the Panamerican highway in October. Cumbre de Alaska is the name of the community where the massacre took place, although those involved in the protest were primarily from Totonicapán, a municipality that has a very well-organized indigenous mayoralty in all of its 48 communities. There have been numerous raids on community radio stations -- the station at Doble Via was raided only a week after the massacre at Cumbre de Alaska. Throughout the year there have been displacements of people in rural communities that are slated for the construction of hydro-electric projects or the production of biofuels. Much of this has been met with resistance as communities have not been willing to lie down and let the state and foreign transnationals roll over them. There are a few other communities that have been sites of popular resistance, including San José del Golfo in the department of Guatemala.  

The government had been promoting the Oxlajuj B'aqt'un -- a b'aqt'un is a 400-year calendar cycle, and oxlajuj (pronounced "osh-la-hooh") is the number 13, a sacred number in the Mayan numerological system. So the ending of the 13th b'aqt'un is an especially auspicious moment in the history of humanity, according to the Maya cosmovision. Let me explain the significance of the number 13, as it was explained to me in the wee hours of the morning in one of the four ceremonies that I attended at Q'umark'aj, also known as Utatlan -- the capital city of the ancient K'iche' kingdom ("kingdom" is the best I can do in English for the Spanish word "reino") that was destroyed by the Spanish invaders. Although it is nominally under the control of the Ministry of Sports and Culture (under whose aegis archeological excavations and reconstructions are carried out), it is still used as a ceremonial site.  I will talk more about the ceremonies and all that in a little bit. I spent nearly 24 hours at Q'umark'aj between the 20th and the 21st, and both during and in between the ceremonies, the priests/spiritual guides (again, English doesn't quite have a word that corresponds to the K'iche' term ajq'ij -- "day keeper" is a frequent translation, but in Spanish people often use guia espiritual or sacerdote Maya) who were presiding over the ceremonies offered some reflections, and there were two interesting ones about numerology.

The Maya philosophy, spirituality, cosmovision, or whatever you want to call it, is based both on the natural world and human beings as part of that natural world. They believe that humans are complete in ourselves, and we are representations of the sacred at the same time. We have a physical self, a body, that has to be protected, nurtured and cared for. We have social selves, and so our relations with other people need to be taken seriously. And we have spiritual or cosmological selves. In this way, humans are conduits between "the heart of the sky" and "the heart of the earth" -- we stand as a gateway between "father sky" (or "grandfather sky") and "mother earth" (or "grandmother earth"). 

But in this context the human body is a representation and reflection of the cosmos. And much of the numerological system, which is at the base of the calendar, is based on the human body. The number 13 corresponds to the major articulations or joints in the human body: we have two ankles, two knees, two hip joints at the bottom. Starting with the hands, we have two wrists, two elbows, and two shoulders. That adds up to 12. And then the neck joint is the 13th. So that's where the significance of thirteen comes in.  Another important number is 20. This also comes from the human body: we have ten toes and ten fingers, 20 digits altogether. The number 20 in the K'iche' language is the word winaq -- which is the same word that means "human being". There are 20 nahuals (guardian spirits) and thus 20 sacred day-names in the Maya calendar -- a month consists of 20 days, one for each nahual. So a "year" in the sacred calendar, the ritual calendar, is 260 days (13 times 20). This also corresponds to the gestational period, the time between conception and birth. 

 Every 400 years, then, we begin a new "long cycle" in the Maya calendar.  But this one was especially significant because it was the thirteenth one. Throughout the year there were attempts to commercialize and turn this into something that could benefit the tourist industry. There were occasional photographs of the president and vice-president kneeling in front of an altar, surrounded by Maya priests. But many were concerned that all of this activity was going to be turned into a piece of "folklore" - a word that, as I have mentioned in previous blogs, has a very negative connotation in Guatemala, and that it would continue to marginalize the Maya communities that have suffered at the hands of governments, both colonial and national, for the last 500-plus years.  Some of the Maya organizations had taken this as an opportunity to try and correct some of the misconceptions about the so-called "Maya prophecies" predicting "the end of the world".  One of the more active political organizations, the Consejo de los Pueblos del Occidente (the Council of Western Peoples), which has organized the community consultations on mining and mega projects throughout the country, put out a call a few weeks ago, asking people to go to the sacred sites that corresponded to their particular ethnic group, starting on the 20th at noon, to reclaim the sites, and together with spiritual leaders, participate in ceremonies to mark the close of one era and the start of a new one. 

I contacted some of my friends who work with the CPO, who are K'iche's, and they were going to go to Q'umark'aj, so I decided I would go there as well. Although my current research project is not specifically about one Maya ethnic group, but since my original starting point was with the Maya K'iche' community in New Bedford and I lived in the department of El Quiché for a year, it made sense to go to Q'umark'aj. A little while later I received an invitation from another organization, Chilam Balam de los K'iche's, an organization that is more spiritual in nature, while CPO is more political. Both are political, in that while Chilam Balam includes mostly Maya priests in its membership and they sponsor ceremonies fairly regularly, they are also involved in advocacy work around sacred sites, trying to regain many sacred sites that are currently not readily accessible, or are under threat from development projects. Chilam Balam was also calling people to attend a series of ceremonies at Q'umark'aj, and since I had known people from Chilam Balam and attended both a few ceremonies and some meetings that they had organized last year, that was another indication that I should be at Q'umarkaj.  

So, I purchased my ticket for the 17th, figuring that I might have a few days (the 18th and 19th) for preparatory activities, or what have you (things turned out differently, as they often do), in order to be fully prepared for the 20th and 21st.